After a string of web hits, Portal A, more than any creative shop, has cracked the code of online video. Over the past two years, the San Francisco studio’s music videos, web documentaries, and online satires have time and again charmed notoriously finicky online viewers, the press, and, most important, Portal A’s clients.
Today, the company is watching closely whether its latest video will spread like a weed on Facebook and Twitter. Its spot, which features a posh backdrop, a few celebrities and some Wes Anderson-style humor, promotes the video-chat service Airtime. The jury is still out on whether the video will become a monster, but thus far, Airtime: The Best Internet You’ve Ever Had (above) has racked up at least 90,000 views on YouTube and won coverage in TechCrunch, All Things D, Ad Age, Mashable, Ad Age, Ad Week, and Business Insider.
Even if it doesn’t rack up millions of views, the two-minute, forty-two-second video will help the Portal A team refine its recipes for virality. If Portal A can prove there’s a reliable way to produce hits on the internet, it might do a lot more than bring in more business for the Haight-Ashbury-based startup. It might also lure more cable and broadcast television ad dollars to the internet.
The uncertainty around Portal A’s Airtime ad underscores just how much of viral video production remains art rather than science.
‘THESE GUYS REALLY KNOW WHAT THEY’RE DOING. IT’S AN ART AND A SCIENCE AND THEY HAVE BOTH OF THEM DOWN COLD.’
“It’s actually something that’s incredibly hard to do,” says Portal A founder Kai Hasson. “You can’t really predict it.” Yet the possibility of virality, and Portal A’s track record at delivering it, is what sets the young company apart. Says Hasson’s co-founder Nate Houghteling. “It’s a differentiator for online video as opposed to other forms of advertising… The viral element should always be seen as the icing on the cake. It’s just kind of an X factor.”
There’s little doubt that the client, Airtime, is hoping for a hit. Launched in June by high-profile founders Sean Parker, of Facebook fame, and Shawn Fanning, of Napster fame, the service pairs up strangers for short video chats based partly on their mutual Facebook connections and interests. It’s sort of a cleaner, smarter Chatroulette. Thanks to a flurry of first-day publicity, Airtime spiked to 60,000 daily active users (per tracking firm AppData) before falling to 20,000 daily active users near the end of the month and through most of July. Clearly, it could use some attention.
The Portal A team are the ones to do it, says Airtime adviser Ron Conway. “These guys really know what they’re doing and they have done it enough times that they really understand it,” Conway says. “It’s an art and a science, and they have both of them down cold.”
Portal A began plotting the Airtime video in January, after Conway introduced the two companies to one another, having been deeply impressed by a viral music video Portal A made for San Francisco mayoral candidate Ed Lee. Over burgers in San Francisco, Airtime pitched a variety concepts, all of them grounded in principles Portal A has found are key to making a successful viral video:
- Show the viewer something new. No one is eager to watch an ad. But people do like novelty “When the viewer is going to know that this is a branded video,” Hasson says, “you need to do something special to make people feel this is unique. [Like,] ‘Oh, look at this — I haven’t seen that before, that’s really cool.’”
- Build a compelling backdrop. When a product is the star of the show rather than a living breathing human, other elements need to provide especially strong support. For Airtime, Portal A created an immersive world that was both posh and whimsical. “We present the user interface of Airtime in a really positive light,” Hasson says. “At the same time we wrapped it in this sort of Wes Anderson style video… and I think that’s one of the strong points when people see it on YouTube.”
- Be funny. As difficult as it is to pull off, humor is something Portal A tries to weave into all of its work. “Our videos, even if they’re completely different subjects, there’s a [particular] sense of humor that runs through all of them,” Portal A partner Zach Blume says.
- Find — or create — a niche. Humor is deeply contextual, and narrowly targeted jokes make people laugh harder. So when when making videos for a broad audience, Portal A tries to find a way to target the humor. “We treat ourselves as the niche,” Hasson says. “What’s going to make us laugh?’”
One idea from the three Portal A partners, to flood YouTube with 100 different videos of people using Airtime, proved a bit much for the client. But Airtime did sign off on Portal A’s most cinematic project yet, with Hollywood level production values.
“We wanted to talk about Airtime while showing the platform in action,” says Houghteling. “So we created this main character who’s kind of an eccentric billionaire, and we rented out this mansion down L.A. in the Pacific Palisades that is his home base.”
“He’s kind of a lonely dude,” Hasson adds. “He’s got everything. But he’s got no friends. So you’ll see in the video every shot of him when he’s not using Airtime, he’s totally by himself. Even when there are other people, you’ll never see more than just their hand. So he he needs Airtime in order to connect with people.”
Portal A wrote the script and shot some rough cuts with Ian Pfaff, a Portal A video editor who played the part of the billionaire, to vet the jokes and hone Pfaff’s timing. The team then fanned out to film celebrities who would be chatting with the lonely billionaire, interviews that would be spliced in to the finished video later. Portal A employees scoured the prop shop at Universal Studios and their own collections to outfit the house with a sextant, hand-cranked phonograph, and other toys of their fictional, idle-rich bachelor.
‘ANY TIME I WAS TURNING INTO NORMAL ME, KAI WOULD JUST SAY ‘AMERICAN PSYCHO’’
The day shooting began in Pacific Palisades, Portal A had exactly 12 hours from when the mansion gates opened to complete filming. The owner, wary from working with a rotating cast of guests like Lady Gaga and P. Diddy on other shoots, insisted that only their lone actor, Portal A’s Pfaff playing the billionaire, could touch the floors. Everyone else stood on rugs on cardboard strips. As if being the only person who could stand on the floor wasn’t enough to get Pfaff into character, he was offered notes by his colleagues who suggested he emulate Christian Bale in an American Psycho dinner scene.
The footage presented its own challenges. Acquired with a high-end camera from Red Digital, the 115 distinct shots maxed out Portal A’s computers, taking more than three days of processing to downscale into a resolution low enough to edit digitally. (The high-rez originals would be swapped back in later.)
A rough cut was shipped up to Portal A’s Seattle team for a tighter edit, and for the insertion of graphics. Then the video was delivered to Airtime for initial feedback. Airtime also shared the video at various points with a trusted circle of advisers. Their input was especially useful late in the editing process, Hasson says.
“We’ve seen this video like three hundred times,” he says. “So it can be sort of like just putting new toppings on a pizza. Anything that is different is going to seem better. So you really have to catch yourself.” All in all, Portal A spent roughly a week tweaking the video edit. And then there was the music: Hasson says he listened to over 200 classical pieces to find the right fit.
The week before release, a front-page profile of Portal A in the San Francisco Chronicle helped remind tweeters and tech writers, who would be crucial for distribution of the Airtime video, who the studio was and what it had done. Less than 48 hours before the video was set to drop, a final edit was finished that included color correction, syncing of the separately-recorded audio, and conversion back to the original high resolution footage from the Red camera. On launch day, Tuesday, Portal A and Airtime had arranged for high-profile Airtime executives and backers, including Conway, Fanning and MC Hammer to tweet out the YouTube link.
By the end of the day, the YouTube counter, which can lag traffic by hours or even days, was stuck under 8,000. Within 24 hours it shot to 90,000. The Portal A team appears to have pulled off another YouTube coup.
Blume says the video isn’t likely to break records, but that he is proud of its quality and happy about the first 24 hours of traffic. “[Launch] day is like a mix of moments of quiet, and moments of explosions, or like, ‘Oh my God did you see that?’” says Blume. “And there’s moments of highs, and moments of nervousness… it is one of the more fun days of the year.”
If your idea of fun includes obsessive Twitter watching, compulsive YouTube and Facebook monitoring, and fretting over denting the egos of Kurt “Snake Plissken” Russell and MC Hammer.
Original story: https://www.wired.com/2012/07/portal-a-airtime